On Saturday evening, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played yet another extraordinary match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, adding to the list of instant-classics that the two have contested. In fact, one can easily argue that a riveting Nadal-Djokovic encounter is one of the surest things in sports. Nadal won this match to claim his second major hardcourt title of the year and he is now clearly positioned as one of the top two favorites for the upcoming US Open.
Aside from enjoying the kinetic shot-making that these two always provide, what made the match even more entertaining on TV were the astute observations from commentator Brad Gilbert. While Gilbert is usually stuck in the studio or assigned as the “courtside reporter,” on Saturday he called the match in the booth alongside main ESPN tennis anchor Chris Fowler. Patrick McEnroe was not at the tournament, allowing Gilbert the chance to have a more prominent role.
And this is a role he should have going forward as Gilbert is clearly the most under-appreciated announcer in tennis, and perhaps in all of sports. To have his expertise limited to a secondary role is an affront to knowledgeable tennis fans' sensibilities.
What makes Gilbert such an engaging and lively presence on a telecast is his ideal mix of unbridled passion and enthusiasm for the game married to his extraordinary acumen in relating all key components of a match.
With his inimitable, direct-yet-easy-going manner, the fan and viewer can get a sense of why he was such a successful coach for Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. The encouraging exhortations that Gilbert delivers on air to whichever players are on court leads one to believe he would be a perfect coaching fit for every player.
Gilbert’s style is in marked contrast to the standard ESPN announcing fare – that of the highly intelligent and informed commentator who is unfortunately imbued with the tiresome, detached irony that has so overtaken contemporary parlance. Gilbert comes off as a breath of fresh air next to the stagnant smugness that has filled the airwaves the last couple of decades.
The tennis announcer who gets the most coverage, John McEnroe, is the perfect opposite of Gilbert. Both are animated and outspoken, but Gilbert is the more authentic enthusiast. McEnroe, as he was during his playing days, is all about himself and he cloaks his self-promotion in the guise of self-deprecation, as his fawning cohorts tiresomely throw in the seemingly hundreds of references per match to McEnroe’s past antics – “not sure you would have been so well composed after such a bad call … ha ha ha” – in a weird effort to edify and position McEnroe as the “most important person in the sport.”
And while I wouldn’t put him in the category of a trailblazer like John Madden, I often think that Gilbert is tennis’ version of Madden as he conveys to the viewer the tactile aspects of tennis without trivializing the occasion. Gilbert’s agility in assessing the feel of a match, and the subtle momentum changes within an on-court battle and then relaying the reasons for such to the viewer is a skill he has mastered.
So often, a tennis announcer – be it Fowler or one of the McEnroe brothers or Ted Robinson – will be so quick in declaring that a mere point lost by the player in the lead signifies a crucial momentum shift. It’s as if he is trying desperately to show that, see, they were the first to sense a shift in the match, showing how prescient they are. It’s an insecure and defensive posture for a commentator to make as it robs the viewer the opportunity to view the occasion at its unimpeded, organic pace. Not every point has epic consequences.
Most of the time, Gilbert does not commit this same error. A case in point was during Nadal’s victory on Saturday night. After Nadal let slip a triple break-point opportunity, Gilbert maintained that these were “good errors” in that they reflected the aggressive stance Nadal had maintained the whole match. This was entirely consistent with Gilbert’s pre-match observations on what Nadal had to do to emerge victorious. Simply put – Gilbert sees the macro while his partners are caught up in minutiae.
One hopes that ESPN will see the wisdom in having Gilbert take a leading role in the broadcast of big matches and not just utilized for amusing, energetic asides. For a sport that is always struggling to maintain at least a peripheral presence in the average sports fan’s consciousness, to give a unique commentator like Gilbert greater exposure can only be a positive.